In the previous post, I spoke about restraint and practices of `voluntary simplicity’. In this follow up post, I’d like to talk about the religious motivation for such a choice.
I associate religions with all the more severe and extreme forms of voluntary simplicity. The obvious monastic examples include poverty, chastity, silence, and stark simplicity in food and shelter. The whole idea of monastic retreat from civilization is a form of voluntary simplicity: going without the established culture of your time and place in history. What is it about religion that inspires these choices, particularly in these extreme forms?
My answer to that question comes from Ken Wilber’s understanding of stages of spiritual development. (Obviously, this is not unique to Wilber; he’s just the writer from whom I’ve learned this material). In a healthy childhood and early adulthood, the establishment of a solid, secure and healthy ego is necessary and desirable. However, once this stage is attained, the great moral traditions of the world inspire a person to learn and grow away from her own ego. They teach us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow. I don’t necessarily think that self-denial looks like Luther’s bleak pessimism about the depravity of humanity: we’re not worms. Hence self-denial follows the establishment of a healthy ego. Religiously, we are all precious children of the Most High. But after the establishment of a healthy ego, some amount of self-denial is a worthy goal in itself. The ego, for all its usefulness and necessity, is a powerful and selfish creature. It demands satisfaction and, left to its own devices, values that satisfaction above all else.
I believe it is one of the great universal moral teachings to say that satisfying the ego is not the ultimate purpose of human life. We are called for more: we are called to serve the happiness of our fellow humans, even to the detriment of ourselves. In religious language, I like the idea that we are called to be a blessing in whatever situation we find ourselves in. I think this calling is the main source of the religious call for simplicity: the part of the process of denying ourselves, of striving to go beyond the ego, it part of this greater calling to serve instead of being served.
Much of my own motivation these days comes from reading (and practicing) the mystical dimension of religion. A major insight across the mystical traditions is the conclusion that all reality is unity. As much as this takes many forms and languages in many traditions, I’m persuaded that the unity expressed by the great mystics is a common core idea. At its fundamental core, the universe is is not-two. This gives a direction to going beyond the ego. The ego insists on, and is constructed on, the fact that it is a separate identity. Going beyond the ego needs a great goal, a noble purpose; the Golden Rule is simple to state but difficult to motivate. I find motivation for the Golden Rule in the idea, however strange and unreal, that the divisions between us are illusionary. in particular, the division that creates my own ego, which is necessary for my development, is also illusion. To limit myself in order to allow more for the world is the same as growing myself if, indeed, the world and I are not-two.
There is an entirely different religious direction I could see taking this discussion. Perhaps this voluntary simplicity isn’t as much about denying the self as it is about building a less distracted lifestyle. Religion, when healthy and whole, can be about building a new set of glasses with which to see the world, a set of glasses where the first are last, the meek are to be praised, and peacemakers will inherit the earth. This is a difficult perspective to see in the midst of a busy, hectic and distracted life. I’m under the impression that a major monastic motivation to leave the world was to avoid being caught up in the assumptions of the world. In the midst of the frantic activity, it is very difficult to analyze and understand the assumptions which drive the world. Stepping back gives the necessary perspective to see those assumption and challenge them, should we want to.
Lastly, I think religion offers a useful path towards realizing either a meagre or ambitious goal of voluntary simplicity and self-denial. This path is through religious practices and disciplines. This is quite ironic coming from me, since I’ve given up on almost all of those practices. But I see the value in them even though I’ve chosen to distance myself, and the meditation practice which I have chosen is motivated by hope in its long-term effect on my mind, spirit, choices and behaviours.